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Beat Blank Page Syndrome: 10 Tricks to Get Your Writing Started

Beat Blank Page Syndrome: 10 Tricks to Get Your Writing Started
Beat Blank Page Syndrome

Anyone who writes, whether for school, for work, or for a living knows the scene: you sit there, a blank document open on your computer screen, that little cursor silently (accusingly?) blinking away, and your mind a complete blank. You know overall what you want to say, but how do you get there?

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Fortunately, there are ways to beat that blank page into submission. The trick isn’t to obsess over finding the perfect opening remarks, but to focus on getting words on the page — any words. More often than not, that means forgetting about the brilliant opening line and instead letting yourself write a bunch of crap you’ll never use. What you’ll find is that once that page is all mucked up, the “good stuff” will start to flow.

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Here are ten tricks that will help you get past your blank page paralysis and into the good stuff.

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  1. Start in the middle: Forget the introduction, and jump straight into whatever part you feel comfortable writing. Most of the time, the introduction is the weakest part of the finished product anyway, because we sharpen our thoughts as we write. Go back at the end and write an introduction. Or don’t — a lot of times, you’ll find that your non-introduction turns out to be a pretty good introduction.
  2. Write to someone you know: A lot of time we get all caught up in trying to write something for “everybody”. Find a voice by imagining you’re writing to someone you know — a friend, a family member, your 10th grade English teacher, the guy you hate in accounting — and writing in a way that they would understand. You can even start with “Dear Margaret, I’m writing to tell you about the amazing new product my company is introducing” or whatever — you’ll go back and delete that later.
  3. “Outline-expand-expand-done”: Forget writing straight through. Just write an outline. Then, go back and flesh it out a little, adding a sentence here, a paragraph there. Do that again, also focusing on how one part fits into the next. Repeat as necessary until you’re done.
  4. Write backwards: Skip to the end. What do you want your reader to take away from the piece? OK, write that. What’s the last thing they should understand in order to take that away? Skip to the top and write that. Keep working backwards through the document until you reach a logical beginning place, then write your introduction. Then go through front-to-back and clean it up.
  5. Tell a story: You don’t have to write a document that answers all life’s questions or applies universally. Narrow it down by writing a story. Who are the main players? What do.did they do? What is the conflict? Write “Once upon a time, there were…” and work into your topic. “Once upon a time, there was a young man who didn’t know how best to clean and polish his household silver…” Yeah, it’s stupid, but you’ll end up with a lot of language you can use — go through and cut out the story part and see what’s left.
  6. Free-write/free-talk: Write gibberish. Or get a recorder and talk gibberish. Just throw out words until something starts to make sense. Free associate — writing howto typing people writers… Keep writing whatever comes to mind — what you want for breakfast, how stupid free writing is, who you hate most — for a set period of time (5 minutes is good) or until the page is good and gunked up, then write a line relating to your topic. Write another. Go ahead and write a third. Feels ok, right? Write two more — hey, that’s starting to look like a paragraph! Keep going until you’re done, then go back and delete all the garbage.
  7. Use a pen and paper: Change things up! Step away from the keyboard, grab a pen and some paper (steal from the printer’s tray if you don’t have any blank paper around) and write longhand. Better yet, get yourself a nice fountain pen or some other fancy pen, and some really classy paper — something that makes you want to write just for the feel of ink flowing onto paper. Or use a crappy pencil, I don’t care. It’s not like I have stock in any pen companies or anything. The point is, shift yourself into another mindset and see if that doesn’t help you.
  8. Change location: Instead of shifting your medium, shift your location — head out to a coffeeshop, library, biker bar, anywhere new to shake things up. We’ll grow to associate places where frustration occurs with the frustration itself — change your place, change the frustration.
  9. Read: I read books on writing and they never fail to fire me up, but read anything. Get your head into “language” mode, seeing and thinking in print. Let your mind wander away from your obsessive worrying about your writing, and 9 times out of 10, the ideas will just suddenly click into place. Run back to your computer and write them down and see where that takes you.
  10. Set short goals: A lot of times we get hung up on how long it’s going to take us to finish — so hung up, we can’t even start. So do this: set a timer for 3 minutes, and see how much you can write in three minutes. Write gibberish if you must, but if you can, stay focused and know that you can quit in 3 minutes. Or try writing just 5 sentences. Give yourself trivially easy goals that you can quickly accomplish, and see what happens. A lot of times, you’ll catch a groove even in those couple minutes and be able to keep on going until you’re done.

Once you get over the initial hump of just getting started, you’ll usually find that the words just start coming. They might not be the best words or even vaguely right words, but they’re words — let them come, then hunt them down mercilessly when you revise and edit.

What about you? Any tips you have for people battling the blank page and losing?

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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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